When it comes to building your website, choosing a domain name is one of the most important decisions you will make because it affects how the site is marketed and influences how site visitors feel about your brand.
Here are 11 tips to help make the right domain name decision.
1. Businesses Don’t Own Domain Names
No business “owns” a domain name.
Ownership is not possible with a domain name. Domain names are registered, and this registration entitles the registrant to use the domain.
So, it’s critical to never allow a domain name registration to lapse.
Failure to renew a domain puts it in danger of someone else registering it after it “drops” (when the registration expires).
Here are four tips to help keep a domain name securely registered:
- Make sure your credit card information at the domain registrar is up to date.
- Turning on automatic renewal is a good step for preventing the loss of a domain – but don’t count on it actually working. There are many anecdotes of people losing their domain after the automatic renewal failed to kick in.
- Domain name registrars generally email alerts prior to when a domain is about to expire. Check every year (or quarterly) to make sure your domain registration email address is correct.
- It’s not overly cautious to manually renew the domain registration before the auto-renewal date.
2. Should A Domain Name Match Your Business Name?
A domain name should generally match the name of the business.
But sometimes, creating a new web presence is an opportunity to reconsider the business name for something that’s more web-friendly, or that better reflects changing trends.
One of my past clients was a digital camera site that had to pivot quickly after the iPhone was introduced because fewer people were buying digital cameras. They changed the domain name to a more general scope, and they began reviewing a wide range of products.
Changing trends could be one reason the domain name doesn’t necessarily have to match the business name.
Sometimes, it might be best to brand the online business with something more attractive or snappy and keep the business name in the background.
That said, always register a domain name that matches the brick-and-mortar business, even if the online site uses another name. The business name can be redirected to the website name, or it could be kept in the background – whatever the business situation calls for.
3. Should You Use Choose A Domain Name With Keywords In It?
Domain names that use exact match keywords can tend to convert at a higher rate.
I imagine that when a searcher reviews the search results pages (SERPs) and sees the domain name with the keywords in it that she may think, “Aha, this site has what I want!” Click! Click! Click!
Keywords in the domain name communicate quickly that the site has what the visitor is looking for.
Someone looking for a taco restaurant will probably be more likely to choose “Hank’s Tacos” than “Jose’s Cantina.”
The keywords in the domain infer that the site not only has what they want, but actually specializes in it.
The true value of keywords in a domain name is attracting visitors with a greater intention of buying something or finding interest in the topic.
But keywords in a domain name are not the only way, or even the best choice, for a domain name.
For example, one of the most popular fishing websites on the East Coast of the United States is called OnTheWater.com.
Sometimes it’s better to choose a domain name that conveys the meaning of the topic.
4. Domain Names That Convey Meaning
Sometimes it makes sense to register a domain that conveys a meaning.
SearchEngineJournal.com is a great domain because the words “Search Engine” tells you it’s a website about search engines. The word “Journal” conveys that it’s a news site.
When choosing a meaningful domain name, it may be useful to think about the qualities you want your site to be associated with.
Returning to the example of On The Water, that domain name takes an angler to their happy place, which is located on the water.
Consider writing down the words that convey a special feeling or promise that you want the visitor to understand without thinking about it. For example:
Or you might want visitors to associate your site with a place, for example:
Review synonyms for the quality you want a site visitor to associate with your site and play around with the words to find the right match.
5. Keep The Domain As Short As Possible
A domain name should be so short that it’s easy to type into a browser bar, but it should be long enough to communicate your intended message to your audience.
Some may find that domain names consisting of two to three words are optimal, while others may prefer a one-word domain. There is no hard rule about how short the domain should be.
What’s more important is to avoid using an overly long domain name that might be difficult to remember.
The rule of thumb for how short or long the domain name should be is to consider how the domain name may influence the potential site visitor.
6. Don’t Use Hyphens In Domain Names
Is it OK to use hyphens in a domain name today? Absolutely not.
Avoid using hyphens in a domain name.
Keywords in domains are not so important for ranking as to resort to cramming keywords into the domain name with hyphens.
It makes the site look sketchy and spammy.
Also, there is no ranking benefit from using keywords in the domain name.
7. Consider Registering Domain Name Variants
People mangle words in all kinds of wild ways.
I remember a theatrical venue that had a cabaret seating section, and I was told that half the people calling for tickets were asking for “Cabernet Seating.”
So, this may be arguable, but based on my experience, I believe it’s important to register reasonable domain name variants.
If your domain name is “WidgetExpert,” then you might want to consider registering “WidgetExperts,” as people tend to add an “s” to the end of a singular domain name.
People may remember your domain name incorrectly in many ways, so try to anticipate that and register the domain name variants – then redirect them to the correct domain.
Singular and plural variants are common mistakes, but actual spelling mistakes might be something else to consider. Redirect all of them to the actual domain, and you might even pick up some links from sites that linked using the wrong version.
One last benefit is that this is also a proactive defensive measure that will block future competitors from registering a variant of your domain name.
8. Defensive Domain Registration
Defensive domain registration refers to registering domains that a competitor might register in the future.
It is prudent to register the singular and plural versions of a domain name and also the .net, .org, .biz, .info, and .us versions.
If your site visitors are international and/or speak English, it may be useful to register the .ca, and .co.uk versions of the domain name as well.
One can choose not to register those domains. But in the event of a competitor registering one of those variants, the publisher will have to go through the headache of hiring an attorney to send a cease and desist request to someone (possibly in a developing country) with the hope that the competitor will be afraid enough to turn it over.
Good luck with that.
I don’t like headaches.
Registering those extra versions is not only defensive, but those extra domains could come in handy for other purposes later on.
For example, at one time, I temporarily redirected a website to the .net version while the .com was under repair.
9. What If The Dot-Com Domain Is Already Registered?
Dot-com is quite likely the most desired top-level domain (TLD) because it’s what most people tend to look for.
It’s problematic if another business already uses the desired .com domain. It might not be worth registering a .net or .org or some other top-level domain because of the risk of getting sued or confusing potential site visitors.
If someone is simply hanging on to the domain and not doing anything with it, it’s possibly okay.
But site visitors really like to see that dot-com in the URL.
An increasingly popular choice is to look into country code top-level domains (ccTLDs).
10. Country Code And General Top-Level Domain Names
Country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are domains that are specific to a country.
Choosing a ccTLD is popular right now, such as the .io or .me ccTLDs.
There are also new general top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .agency.
Country code domains are generally best if they match the country of the potential site visitor. Domains in the .ca and the .uk registry are ccTLDs.
Site visitors tend to prefer ccTLDs that are specific to their country.
So, if your clients are in Australia, using the .au version of the domain might make sense.
Traditionally, ccTLD domains tend to convert at a higher rate within their respective countries because that’s what the citizens of those countries trust.
Note: Registering certain top-level domains may require citizenship. For example, .us domains require U.S. citizenship/residency.
11. Has The Domain Been Previously Registered?
Some domains have been previously registered.
This may or may not be an issue.
Since the old days of SEO and until now, there has been an issue with penalties sticking to a domain name.
What happens is that, sometime in the past, a spammer used a domain and burned it (penalized by Google and unable to rank), causing the spammer to let the domain registration lapse so that the domain becomes available again.
Then, when the next business registers that domain, it finds it impossible to rank it for anything meaningful. The site might pop into the bottom of the top 10 once a month for a few days, but then it drops back to the second or third page of the search results – or worse, nowhere.
Before registering a domain, it’s wise to visit Archive.org, where entering the domain name will show whether it has ever been registered.
If the domain has been registered, Archive.org (also known as The Wayback Machine or the Internet Archive) will show an interactive timeline that can be clicked to view previous versions of the websites associated with that domain.
As I understand it, Google does not provide a way to remove a legacy penalty from a domain that received a penalty years earlier.
The Google Search Console (GSC) will not report that there is a manual action. So there is no way to submit a reconsideration request for a penalty that the Google Search Console does not acknowledge.
The first time I heard of this happening was to a newbie SEO professional around 2005 who couldn’t figure out why his SEO site didn’t rank.
The folks over on WebmasterWorld figured it out for him, and one of the forum members contacted Google’s head of webspam, Matt Cutts, on behalf of the SEO newbie.
Cutts confirmed that there was a penalty from a previous registration.
Unknown to the SEO professional, the site had been used to spam on behalf of adult affiliate sites.
Cutts said he would take care of it, and the penalty was subsequently lifted.
Recently in 2019, a person popped up on one of Google’s Webmaster Hangout Videos with curiously similar symptoms.
The site had indeed been used in a spammy way years earlier.
The publisher submitted the URL directly to Google’s John Mueller.
I watched the domain to see if it was able to rank for its own domain name, and about a month and a half elapsed before it finally did.
Aside from Cutts way in the distant past confirming that a legacy penalty had affected a site’s ability to rank, there’s been no official comment from Google about what causes that.
Choosing The Best Domain Name
There are many considerations for choosing the best domain name, and I recommend considering all of the above tips when selecting yours.
The process of choosing a domain name can seem hard.
A trick to making the process easier is to simply ask what a site visitor might prefer, as that approach can be extremely helpful in choosing the best domain name.
Featured image: Shutterstock/Asier Romero